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Tuesday, 28 August 2007

 

Veoh: Different Approach, Same Goal

Joost and the BBC's iPlayer have hogged many of the headlines around IPTV in recent months. These two high profile IPTV platforms work in markedly different ways to the point where they are almost mutually exclusive. I was critical of the iPlayer's lack of streaming functionality while Joost is also struggling for content because of its ring-fenced system design.

It is worth looking at Veoh, not because they are set to take on the world, although they might just get lucky. The reason is that there are bits of their service which others could learn from and if nothing else the Veoh model challenges the establishment in a number of ways.

Veoh Today: Cheap Thrills
Veoh have an existing YouTube clone that seems to be finding its niche in 18+ rated content. Of the most popular 20 videos yesterday, 13 were rated 18+. I could go on to explain the inadequacies of the family filter, but that is not the point of this article.

Perhaps Veoh's new service, VeohTV, is an attempt to move out of the gutter - it is certainly has a lot more respectable content - with its new interface that challenges some of the boundaries of existing services. If it can make its recommendations engine work as promised and if its open network philosophy wins, it could indeed justify it's own hype of being a Joost Killer. There is a game going on between the content owners too, you know...

Very Limited Success
Everyone has heard of YouTube and Joost. Even Babelgum has managed to get itself on the radar by virtue of its "alternative" approach to content. Many people outside the US won't have heard of Veoh though, because it is so small. Alexa ranks their web site as the 27th most popular in the US, in the UK it is number 67. Globally they are down at number 107.

Data from Nielsen/NetRatings shows that there are now nearly 140m viewers of online video, up from just under 60m a year ago. YouTube has managed to grow its share of the market (37% up from 33%) in spite of advances by Yahoo! (11% up from 5%) and AOL (11% share in 2007).

Veoh's share is only 1.8%, up from 1.2% last year. Yes, they are growing but where Google has 69m viewers, Veoh has 2.5m so why am I bothering to write about them? It's not like they are a new company, but there is something about the brashness of it all that is worth noting. VeohTV is an interesting evolution.

A History of Disruption
Currently, veoh.com is a YouTube like service for a combination of user and professionally created content. It has two advantages over YouTube, although on the face of it, these have not been particularly effective.

For viewers, they offer download and store PVR functionality (like iPlayer) as well as streaming of videos (like YouTube & Joost). Publishers in veoh.com have their content automatically added to YouTube and Google Video as well behind the scenes. Publish through Veoh and you get Veoh + YouTube. Publish on YouTube and you just appear on YouTube. Clever, if sneaky.

VeohTV: Rising Above
VeohTV is a very different service - although the philosophy is the same. The VeohTV play is to rise above the content owners and emerge as Your Online Video EPG. VeohTV is a Video Browser - users are presented with a consolidated list of hundreds of web sites in a wide range of categories that already host free video on the internet.

The VeohTV Video Browser is a step up, tailored to improve video playback over standard web browser capabilities that power veoh.com and YouTube. Veoh's value add is the personalisation that its overall set of services learn from the users behaviour. This means that in the long run, the service increasingly recommends content to you that you are likely to enjoy.

On VeohTV you have channel lists by name, category, favourites etc so you can make it work for you. On the standard lists, ABC News right next to the link for CBS News and CNBC. It's an EPG where you can drill down and see a further list of programmes on that channel to watch either streamed live or for download and store.

Controversy Lingers
Users browse videos that are posted anywhere on the web through VeohTV's EPG which has VeohTV adverts on it. Veoh claims not to require partnerships with content owners before they can include the videos in their EPG,
but this is controversial. Users do not see the ads on the content owners site - which VeohTV has disintermediated from the delivery chain.

This costs the content owner site traffic, which may be an important source of revenue and branding. It may even be why the video exists - to generate and maintain site traffic. Although the content owner can still embed ads within the video, any branding on their original web site is lost and replaced with the Veoh branding (sponsored by Verizon) on the customer's interface.


See the two different interfaces to the same content firstly an ABC.com and secondly the same programme on VeohTV. On their own version, ABC is getting paid by QuietAgent for the ad-link directly beneath the webcast link. On the VeohTV version, this revenue opportunity is lost.

AI on the EPG
VeohTV's value add is the AI that they are building to help you navigate the huge volume of available content on the open network. There is a recommendations engine bolt on coming.
This delay is pending the patent of the AI that supports this feature. If they can make this work to predict what people want to watch, they will be extremely well placed to take on the role as the IPTV EPG.

This is where what VeohTV offers touches Arootz because both claim to be able to proactively download what you are going to want to watch so that it is there when you need it. Unlike Arootz, VeohTV is not at present designed for multicast so the implications on the networks could be very different. Where Arootz uses Multicast, VeohTV is a unicast service and this proactive ability in VeohTV promises to increase the burden significantly.

When combined with the recommendations engine, this PVR capability means that VeohTV can download a whole bunch of stuff on the off-chance that you might be interested - using your network resources to their maximum potential. With enough hard disk space and a fat pipe, you could have the whole schedule punted to you every day.

Standards War
There is a standards war being played out for what I have previously termed the IPTV operating system. Specifically these are the components that deal with content upload, EPG, hosting, distribution, caching and the client video player and DRM. Most of the recent developments like Joost have offered this whole set as their core service to the content community.

VeohTV is different because it is just an EPG & video player. It simply directs the user to the content owners own CDN - my stream from ABC news on VeohTV came from a server within my ISPs network, the same source as when I viewed the same file on ABC.com. When a user downloads a file for later viewing, the application has a P2P option although in the ABC news example exclusively preferred the download server within my ISP again.

This isn't some specialised VeohTV caching, it just happens that my ISP has a cache with ABC content on it. A YouTube clip downloaded through VeohTV came from Google servers on the internet, so VeohTV clearly leaves the hosting and distribution costs with the content owners.

The Battle for Eyeballs
The winner of the standards war will be where a significant chunk of advertising revenues land. Joost are aiming for the same pot but offers the whole OS in its value proposition. Perhaps in doing so, Joost gains a little more control than the media moguls want to give up yet. There is definitely some hedging of bets going on, with VeohTV as one of the disruptive forces, but this is a battle where inb the end "there can be only one" (or two perhaps).

Consumers are not going to runs lots of different software applications to watch different channels - there is an aggregator role to be filled. In spite of the technical and philosophical differences, VeohTV is fighting Joost, YouTube, Babelgum and even Kontiki for this role.

VeohTV's stance as a light touch aggregator rather than a value added network provider is interesting as it gives content owners the choice between open and closed networks at a time when the right way to distribute video is still unclear. There are elements of closed networks like DRM which weigh heavily in its favour, but VeohTV effectively deals with other features like specialisation and video playback quality that were also thought to favour closed network applications.

On the other hand, open networks have often won internet standards battles - or at least held onto a position in the face of a proprietary goliath - because no managed service can properly scale to deal with the breadth of the opportunity in an open system. Veoh's model has a chance of survival, even if it may not dominate.

More Than Meets The Eye
While there has been
aggressive posturing and threats of legal action from those who want us to believe that VeohTV's approach amounts to piracy, Veoh is not entirely alone out there - Michael Eisner, formerly CEO of Disney sits on the Veoh board and Time Warner are also investors. Disney own the ABC service I tested - oh, what a tangled web we weave...

Many might not notice the time-lag between a video appearing on ABC.com and on Veoh's ABC channel, but it is there if you are interested in the above screenshots. Old news anyone? These snaps were taken at 2.45pm on the 17th August, before the webcast from that day was released so ABC.com is current. Veoh still has the video from the 15th August as its most recent - a day out of date. How does this happen...? Does the day's webcast need to be uploaded into the directory after all, or do Veoh and Disney's owners ABC have a delayed publication deal?

The delay is enough to make me wonder whether VeohTV really is an open network after all or whether it just another publishing platform with gatekeepers at the door. Perhaps given the nature of the content on their first generation service, we should be glad that they are managing content more closely this time.

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Thursday, 23 August 2007

 

Is there a Wizard at Ofcom?

Or is that a dunce's hat they are wearing?

Do Ofcom Have a Clue?
The most subjective point that I made in my recent iPlayer series, and in particular in my article on The Regsiter, was that Ofcom know what they are doing. I have had a fair amount of feedback along the lines of the following:

"Ofcom really don't have a clue about anything and just are pushed from pillar to post by the amount of lobbying going on. You are really naive if you think that someone in Ofcom is really the Wizard pulling all the levers in the background."

Is BT the Power Behind the Scenes?
This thesis holds that actually, it is BT that holds power. The theory goes that BT are able to make a weak minded Ofcom accede to their every wish through their use of Jedi mind tricks.

I agree that the Force is strong with BT. Their Regulatory department is staffed by the brightest people in Telecoms, whose role it is to confuse the heck out of the rest of us. Furthermore, there is evidence that BT seems able to pull victory from the jaws of defeat when it seems that they have been beaten into submission - but does this mean that we are under the spell of a great magician? Or is it just that (unlike everyone else), they just get on with it when decisions go against them?

In the late 1990s, it is certainly true that Oftel were pulled from pillar to post. They were naive and believed Mercury every time a grievance was raised. Similarly, they fell under the spell of MFS magicians who worked tirelessly for changes to the market that altered the telecoms landscape in the UK and throughout Europe.

Many of those same people who fought BT in the 90s have now found themselves at BT since the company's renaissance in the 00s. Another example of poacher turned gamekeeper in telecoms...

BT has Good Reason to Like the iPlayer
It is certainly true that BT wins from the iPlayer's launch. Their wholesale product still covers 34% of the market (excluding Retail) and the Capacity Based Charging scheme means that any extra iPlayer driven usage within this base just adds to BT's profits. The price of the BT Central product is worth noting - £155 per mbps per month.

In the long term, the iPlayer driven LLU may cost BT subscribers but certainly within the short term, the additional usage will drive wholesale revenues that more than fill any gap. Over the long term, the iPlayer is likely to drive backhaul circuit investments from LLU operators, which is revenue to BT too.

A Strategic Decision to Go Ahead
Of course the BBC Trust made the final decision to go ahead - but if Ofcom had turned to them and said, "look, there's an £831m bill, the ISPs don't have that kind of money", the Trust's hand would have been forced.

But Ofcom did not say that - the discussion probably went more along the lines of "look, there's a £831m bill, the ISPs will grumble but the investment is for their own good". In fact when the MIA was announced to the world, the press release made no note of the cost whatsoever and you have to work down to page 103 before you get to the detailed assessment! So did BT persuade Ofcom that the bill was an acceptable cost and not to make a fuss about it, or did Ofcom make its own mind up about that?

I see no evidence of BT being more prepared than the other players which is often a dead giveway that a decision has gone their way. In fact the initial suggestion that they too were fighting the launch, however off-the-record and however quickly retracted, suggests that there was no grand plan behind this. BT executive were clearly not all quite on-message.

My view is that Ofcom are now pulling the levers. More specifically, it seems that the levers are being jerked around violently as Ofcom battles to reign in the huge range of stakeholders over whom it has an influence. My conclusion is based on the fact that it seems that they can do no right by anyone which suggests to me that they are trying hard to balance opposing interests.

Equality of Hardship
Let's look at who Ofcom have upset recently... First came structural separation - it cannot be argued that this has helped BT because of the amount of work involved to demerge Openreach and create a set of systems and processes that could support the new design of wholesale market. It might be in the group's long term interests, but that is more due to the quid-pro-quo that saw the chains removed from BT Retail.

Then Ofcom upset the Broadband Stakeholder Group and a previous Ofcom boss, Kip Meek who feel that we are not doing enough to prevent Britain becoming a digital backwater. Next Ofcom upset customers and the market with their tacit acceptance of two tier pricing, before they upset the politicians who questioned whether the organisation was too big for its boots and was making political decisions.

Just when I was beginning to think that the interests of investors in LLU broadband were the only ones that had not been targeted, came the iPlayer. Having had a good run of it for a couple of years, the iPlayer brings down the hammer to signal the start of a new and much bigger wave of investment for those players.

Ofcom Understand the Dynamics
Ofcom clearly understand the market - assuming they they are unique in reading their entire
Communications Market Report. Their 2007 version was published today and is a veritable goliath as research pieces go. I have printed it double sided on A4 paper and even without the Radio sections, the report sits over an inch high on my desk. I am sorry for the tree, but this is the only way to digest so much information. I am assuming that Ofcom have digested it...

So is it a wizard at Ofcom or a Jedi at BT? It may well be both - but it does not appear to me that BT is being favoured by the regime. Where BT wins is that it plays the regulatory game where ISPs do not.

The Regulatory Game
The game consists of huge volumes of data and documentation being passed backwards and forwards. What tends to happen is that the crucial part is in a footnote on page 142 where one sentence changes the market. BT will take time to read this and reply in kind, whereas the ISPs just don't put enough effort into unravelling the mysteries that BT and Ofcom conjure up until it is too late - and the iPlayer launches.

Is it Ofcom's fault that the game is played this way? Should they be made to stand in the corner and be subjected to ridicule for allowing BT to run rings around them? In my view, the answer is no - detail is a feature of regulatory policy making or there will be loopholes. Every player in the market knows this and has used it to their advantage in the past. If some players in the market believe that there are higher priorities at a given moment than responding to consultation, then that is their decision.

Trying to play the victim when the result doesn't go your way just strikes me as bad sportsmanship.

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Thursday, 16 August 2007

 

Unlimited* Broadband

Suddenly everyone is a power user. I bet you didn't see that coming...

Wakey Wakey!
The iPlayer is a wake up call because we can all now see the beginnings of the final product. ISPs have known about it for years - the market estimates have been openly shared - but perhaps because the development process and consultation took 4 years, they might have forgotten that this day would someday come. Now the product is out there - with a prized place on the BBC's web site - all those light users that made the economics work (just) are suddenly potential power users too.

The BBC's online media organisation is formidable and is a mass market proposition. bbc.co.uk is the 5th most popular UK site according to Hitwise - most of us have sampled online video and radio from them already. Streaming clips validated the concept of online video, but the iPlayer brings the promise of what has been lacking so far - stuff that lots of people want to sit back and watch. Only the networks - with their threats of throttling and extra charges - stand in the way of mass market adoption.

They Got Themselves Into This Mess
It is hard to feel sympathy: we all know that ISPs have made decisions that have put them where they are today as they fought their way through the land grab over the last few years. The result is a market where customers think they are buying one thing, while their suppliers are delivering something different. What does " unlimited " mean to you? What does " unlimited* " mean to you?

The asterisk is vital as we all know, but even if you read the Terms & Conditions to find the Fair Use Policy (FUP), you are unlikely to be left with the impression that it is going affect you. The policies talk of using P2P and filesharing applications like they are some sort of nasty disease that you are very unlikely to catch. Some ISPs were up front about it - capped products were launched - but they really weren't very popular. Because they were trying to grow numbers in an expanding market, there remained the option to go unlimited* for just a little bit more money each month. And for a while, the model worked, especially when the market price hit the magic £17 per month tipping point.

Problem, What Problem?
Power users were simply not a problem for most ISPs because they became such a small corner of the base. As prices fell, adoption rates soared and ever lighter users were added to the network reducing average usage and actually making the price cuts work financially.

The trick with fixed price models is to set the price at a point where even light usage customers choose it anyway because it gives them certainty in their monthly bill for a reasonable price. The "under-utilisation" of your new customers actually makes average usage fall which reduces cost per customer. Set the fixed price too high and you only get the power users for whom the service is still cheap. Set it too low and you know what happens...

But the chickens are coming home to roost. The market is saturating and the inevitable has happened: light users now have the urge to use video filesharing applications too. Only we're not talking about mininova or some diseased video pirates now, it's the iPlayer from that bastion of British media, the BBC.

P2P: The Disruptive Force
Has the BBC caught the disease too, or are the ISPs wrong to treat filesharing as a parasite? It was certainly easier when P2P meant bootleg content. Then, service providers probably held the moral high ground even perhaps protecting the interests of media organisations in a strange sort of way.

Now though, mainstream media is using P2P technology because it delivers them a lower cost for their distribution. P2P was necessary in the piracy world because viewers were not paying customers and a way had to be to offload the cost. The solution was brilliant - use the spare CPU, RAM, Disk and Bandwidth of all users to remove the need for central servers that would a) be traceable and b) cost money. Is this a necessary move from big businesses or is it predatory?

Big media have turned the poacher into the gamekeeper. Of course P2P saves them money but it also helps their DRM by fragmenting the file into disparate pieces on its journey across the internet. The technology works in their interests but it does so at the expense of the ISPs. I'll save writing about the black arts of P2P economics for another day, but suffice to say, P2P generates a lot of extra upstream traffic and disaggregates traffic flows making them very difficult to manage (ie. it costs more). There are solutions, but that too is another article.

If big media was paying their share of distribution costs then perhaps the ISPs concerns would have a hollow tone. This is just not how the internet works: the BBC grant free peering much in the same way as peasants receive an invitation to one of the Queen's Garden Parties, something that is inconceivable in reverse. The fact is that users want this content out there and they don't care who their ISP is as long as long as the connection is free(ish). The ISPs are over a barrel.

What is Really Happening Now?
But lets take a reality check and look at traffic across the LINX peering point where the iPlayer's impact on network bandwidth is likely be seen first. Although traffic is up this week, it has almost certainly been due to wind and rain rather than diseases running wild over the network.

It certainly sounds like the apocalypse may be coming but in fact there is no real evidence of any iPlayer growth in demand although you would not expect to see growth in August. There may be signs that the seasonal lull may not be as obvious as in past years, but that could just be the terrible weather this summer. It will be interesting to keep an eye on these graphs in the autumn when the days get shorter.

Supply is NOT Infinite!
Before dismissing the problem, look at the year on year picture at LINX. Peak traffic loads are close to double what they were a year ago so while connection numbers are only increasing by 15% on an annualised basis. 115% of customers have used 200% the bandwidth used a year ago, indicating that usage per user even before the iPlayer may be going up by as much as 75% every year.

Has your broadband bill gone up by 75% in the last year? Probably not... you have an unlimited* product. Maybe though the * is getting bigger and more ominous? Am I going to get punished for watching the Beeb?

If you feel like this you are not alone - it's going to be an issue for everyone very soon. Looking at some estimates of the bandwidth impact, you can see the iPlayer itself - one application - being responsible for as much traffic in 2010 as is carried from every other source put together now. Total traffic will grow tenfold if ITV, Sky and the others follow suit.

It has amused me to see the rekindling of the network neutrality "debate" in response to the iPlayer launch. Network Neutrality is not a debate, it is a faith and the debate is no more constructive than arguing with someone about their religion. I agree with Martin Geddes - he's my god on this issue.

No, the problem is not that ISPs want extra money for carrying this traffic just to increase their bottom lines - although they would of course take it if they could. The problem is that most of them still haven't paid back the last loans that took them into broadband and are going to have to find more money from customers with unlimited* usage to pay the £831m iPlayer bill.

We Could All See it Coming
Someone asked me once if I had £6m would I put it into their LLU project. Only if I had £60m in the bank I said, because it was clear a long time back that investment was a recurring theme of the broadband business model. That was before a public body came along and wanted to double the load on the networks and them with the bill. My father researched black holes for a living in his career as an astronomer. I often feel like I am doing the same thing when I look at telecoms economics.

ISPs knew what was coming in the iPlayer. Perhaps they didn't believe it possible that the BBC would get this far. Perhaps they took their eye off the ball in the price war deathmatch? You don't want to worry your customers unnecessarily - especially when you are in land-grab mode - but more should have been done by the big players to clarify exactly what they mean by unlimited* before the problem arose. Maybe that is what is happening now?

Even now though there are gains to be made and there is a game being played out. Tiscali are playing chief bad-guy, perhaps because if TalkTalk had tried taking on that role, Dunstone would have been given the Graham Taylor treatment. Others are staying out of it knowing that they haven't dug themselves in quite as deeply and may be able to profit from the negative PR that the two fighting the case will surely receive.

In spite of the fact that the problem that the industry has caused itself has become so apparent*, they are still looking for ways to get one up on each other. That's competition and it shows that the market is working as it has been designed to.

But has it been designed well? Will ISPs find a way to make extra charges stick? If they do not, where is the money coming from to pay back the LLU bill, let alone the iPlayer bill? Will we see a further wave of Telco bankruptcies as yet another round of investment is written off and sold for pennies in the pound deepening the vicious circle of price decline and under-investment? If no money is made from LLU, who is going to lend the money to build fibre?

ISPs need to act as a cartel* on this, but then that is illegal... We're back to the natural monopoly issue again.



* subject to fair use policy. See Orange's as an example. Shockingly vague - I have captured it here for the historical record as I suspect this may have to change! Tiscali's is a little better, but it still tries to brush the problem aside "If you don't use Peer to Peer or file sharing software it is unlikely you will ever be affected by this Fair Usage Policy"

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Tuesday, 7 August 2007

 

iPlayer Conclusions

Of course, any conclusions now are based on the current beta so if you are looking back on this article in a year's time, don't be surprised to find that what I say is now horribly out of date.

The BBC's service is very limited. It is riddled with compromises which detract from the end result and it's Kontiki P2P delivery is both a source of inefficiency and controversy.

And yet it is a start. A walk of a thousand miles and all that, but by taking the leap and putting the bulk of its programming on the internet, the BBC has opened a range of opportunities for the development of the service.

Kontiki's P2P is really not very good. It was very disorganised in comparison to Joost, which makes iPlayer and 4oD downloads slow to start and traces look a bit like kids bickering in the playground. I will be keeping an eye on peer hit ratios and will report back periodically on those as it is too early to draw firm conclusions on the amount of traffic that the BBC is offloading onto peers. But for now, talk is of underhand tactics.

Underhand? Yes - absolutely. My iPlayer is closed in the taskbar and yet kservice.exe is still running according to my task manager (Ctr+Alt+Del, Processes). Does it matter? Not to me as I don't pay for my upload but ever since I installed and tested 4oD I have experienced a significant increase in used upload capacity. If I was a cable customer, the extra bandwidth used on the coax might degrade everything for me and for my neighbours.

I deliberately slotted the Arootz article in the middle of this iPlayer articles because in that concept you can see how the BBC may be able to do it differently - multicasting to storage. If the BBC are committed to Kontiki, then they all have their work cut out.

As a user application, the iPlayer is inferior even to its 4oD stablemate because of the strange disconnection between where you select the programme - the web - and the application you actually view it on - the iPlayer itself.

It is all very different from Joost, Babelgum, VeohTV or YouTube. Those services are for live entertainment. The iPlayer is not - it is a catchup download service where you have to wait to watch what you want. The lack of progressive streaming is a big shortfall.

The addition of progressive streaming would make the service feel a lot more like TV. Furthermore, it would open the door to further development of the client software onto set top boxes, freeing the service of the chains that currently attach it to the PC.

I am not saying that the BBC is wrong to offer catchup downloads. It is a part of the product set that they want to end up with. Perhaps it is the low hanging fruit, but the final solution also needs to replicate and add value to the core broadcast model. Here too, there is work to be done.

Catchup Downloads has a number of avenues for development too. The capability will be very important in mobile TV where the cellular networks are simply too immature to offer anything like an acceptable experience for streamed services. Here, latent demand for mobile TV can be met by bridging the mobile handset and the broadband network, sideloading the media onto the device while the user sleeps. The iPlayer's current design provides this as a further development option, if nothing else.

But all is not lost - and that's why I issued the word of caution in the opening paragraph. As a service to me as a license fee payer, it is very good simply because it's got BBC programmes on it and not Channel 4s, Joost's, Babelgum's or Veoh's. It's attractiveness is directly proportional to the BARB figures which show the BBCs average viewing (for June) at 7 hours 24 mins against Channel 4's 2 hours 15 minutes.

In my service review, I wondered whether content was really king, and I think on reflection it is. What I think I've learned is that the application and the distribution network play a vital role in the shadows, they are the king-makers...

The BBCs royal aspirations are still alive and well after this release, but they really need to think about the people they are surrounding themselves with and whether they can get to where they want to be with the baggage they are carrying. I'm not just referring to Kontiki, the BBC is also weighed down by beaurocracy and that too is severely limiting the service.

If the BBC is serious about IP as a distribution technology for TV, and I believe they are, they need to evolve to a point where they simultaneously broadcast and offer up for time-limited storage their entire portfolio of programming. Quite what value they are creating by doing so is an interesting question given their unique commercial status - for competitors, the benefit is targeted adverts - but what does the iPlayer add economically? Something for another day perhaps...

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Monday, 6 August 2007

 

Arootz: One to Watch

Sometimes, you see something so elegant and simple, you wonder why no-one thought of it before. An old colleague and regular visitor to this blog contacted me the other day to advise me to check out Arootz - and I'm very pleased he did.

A Relative Unknown
I wish I could claim an exclusive, but I can't. They have been in BusinessWeek & the Jerusalem Post already but it appears that the point was lost on most people. There are only 53 blog entries on the company, the vast majority seeming to repeat BusinessWeek verbatim while most of the rest focusing on the fact that the company raised some cash recently.

One article I found does add some value, commenting on the BusinessWeek piece rather than just repeating it - more questions than answers, concluded Businessofvideo.com - and I agree with that part at least, but perhaps Mr Rayburn had a lot on that day because he didn't actually ask the questions. I have asked the questions - I contacted Arootz and their CEO replied with a significant amount of detail - and having looked into it, I have to disagree with the negative thrust of what Dan says.

Old Technology, New Ideas
It is true that multicast has been around for ten years or more. I know, I was at UUNET 10 years ago when UUcast was being hyped and developed in parallel. As with most other attempts to use multicast, that product failed to find a market because in the end, all it was doing was replacing broadcast and as we all know, if something isn't broken...

Multicast has again come back into people's thinking recently as IPTV services have been rolled out using the technology for the linear (live viewing) portion of what they offer. The problem there remains that multicast has not catered for timeshift behaviour. If you want on-demand, IPTV has to unicast and that means that you use a whole stream all to yourself.

I was discussing this problem with an eminent industry architect back in April at the ISP Forum event - his suggestion was staggercast, which effectively means a multicast stream of a programme being distributed every N minutes, much like Sky's multistart service for prime time movies. It was a definite improvement on multicast / unicast combinations already in use, but doesn't really tick that on-demand box.

Businessofvideo.com is also correct in highlighting that personal storage has also been around for ever. Quite right, it has, but what Arootz has done is combine this with multicast so that the network sees one stream and yet everyone gets a copy that they can watch what they want on demand. It's a mashup of two very well understood technologies and that is the simplicity that I refer to in my opening statement.

The Solution in a Nutshell
In summary, there are 3 elements - Distribution Servers where the content owner injects content, a Multicast enabled network and a set of user Multicast-2-Storage (M2S) agents sitting on PCs or STBs. Arootz sells this CDN as a managed service to content owners and works with the ISPs to make sure that multicast is turned on over the network. I'll come back to the web of relationships later in the article, but I will focus first on the service piece.

Targetted Adverts
My initial reaction was: ok, sounds good they've dealt with on demand but if you are multicasting, you miss the personalisation capability that must be at the centre of IPTV to make it a step beyond broadcast. Erm no, they've thought of that.

"The ads are delivered to storage ... based on the advertising targeted parameters, the decision which ad to show is targeted individually (based on a doubleclick server somewhere) and then the ad is inserted in real time into the video stream but since it comes from storage, it is fast, high quality and real time." Arootz's CEO Noam Bardin.

That's clever - the media and the ads are delivered separately and reassembled to create the final, personalised media file...

Navigating Uncharted Waters
What about navigation and finding what you want among the wealth of possibilities?

"We allow users to subscribe to RSS like feeds from a variety of sources ... We provide interfaces for preference engines to assist in selection of content such as 'the highest rated channel based on yesterdays actual viewership' or 'all content with the word Shark somewhere'" (Shark is of course an example of something you might be interested in.)

Hmm, I like that too. This is the elegance - mashing up social networking, RSS and an EPG into something that can cope with the huge volumes of content...

Huge Volumes of Content
Arootz estimates that the average user consumes 125GB of content per month. Obviously it depends on resolutions: it might be a fair bit less than that for standard definition TV, but if we were talking about 1080p, we could be looking at four times that figure. Is 500GB a lot of data? I think that depends on whether you are a unicast network or a hard-drive.

Terabyte drives are the basis for Arootz's business model and that starts to explain why you have not seen this model previously. Storage has always been far too expensive to make plans like this work but Arootz reckons that by 2010, you will be seeing cost effective drives offering 5 Terabytes... At this point, the limitation is back on the network.

Multicast takes care of the core network capacity issue because as with caching models I have discussed previously, each media file need only be sent once to each exchange and not once per user as with unicast delivery. This saves many thousands of identical 2Mbps plus streams and brings us back and the point where the bottleneck is again the physical speed of the local loop.

Use Case Example
While Arootz claims that its service only uses off-peak capacity, this is a configuration option that can easily be changed. The idea is that you watch live TV via the live multicast feed. If you are not watching (or are watching and have some spare network capacity), other programmes are sent down to you and stored on your machine. You pull these up on demand.

Of course you can't download the entire programme catalogue. Lets say there's 10 channels that make up your regular viewing, you can't even download everything on each of those unless you have a very very very fast connection. Choosing which programme to download (because you might want to watch it) is the job of the M2S AI agent.

The question then becomes whether the AI is good enough to make sure that the file you want is already on your hard drive when you come to watch it. Backing that up, there's the fall-back unicast option in the event that you are feeling a bit wacky today. It looks like it might hold together.

You might even find that the model allows you to escape some of the shackles of the local loop speed as it allows you to watch delayed feeds at 720p (6.4Mbps) even though your line may only just be good enough for 480p (2.5Mbps). A 2.5Mbps connection maxed out enables you to receive something like 800GB per month. For 720p content you need the AI to give you a 40% hit rate (you watch 25 hours a week, it downloads 65 hours that you "might" be interested in).

So Far, So Good
Arootz links multicast with storage and adds personalised RSS subscription with targeted advertising. Sounds good so far doesn't it? The software assets they have are clearly well thought out and fill a growing need. But what about the issues?

The weakness of the Arootz model is that it requires each link in the chain to be working in harmony. The content distributor must plant the content on the CDN, the ISP needs to multicast the channels and the PC or STB hardware requires the M2S software to take advantage of the storage and run the channel selection process.

Conflicts in the Supply Chain
These three parties are not exactly in cahoots. The interests of content and network are juxtaposed and that led to the Network Neutrality issues of 2006. Sitting uncomfortably with a foot in each camp are the hardware companies. Only Sky, with assets in each area following their acquisition of Amstrad last week, seem remotely aware of the need to align the interests of the players in the supply chain.

Although Arootz has an elegant solution to the video unicast problem, they need all elements in the chain to see it and play along to make it work. Without any one element, it breaks down. If they work together, everyone wins. So who is pulling it through so that the vision becomes a reality? As with other efforts to bridge these gaps, is it a question of chicken or egg?

"Look at it differently – if you believe (and I do) that most of video is going to be consumed off IP networks then there is a scaling problem with the current technologies. This scaling is quality, cost and technical. The main bottleneck is the network and our solution is the only cost effective way for this to happen. It may not be us but it will be multicast based. Just like internet advertising was dead in 2001, premium content would never go online in 2005 – Multicast will have to rebound because unicast cannot scale to deliver the cost/quality we expect.
" Noam Bardin again.

I agree with everything he says there, but it doesn't really answer the question. What is the incentive for each party to play ball? I think the answer is actually much more simple.

Cash. Cold, Hard Cash.
The commercial model is that content owners pay Arootz either as a straight arrangement or as an advertising revenue share. Simple enough so far, but in parallel, they are selling to ISPs.

"Our offer to them is 'let us accelerate your content on your network such as VOD, Internet TV and other components'. We will then wholesale the access to 3rd party content owners and provide them with a revenue share back so that they get more content distributed on their networks, more efficient distribution (less load), they get a slice of the action and thus are part of the value chain, unlike P2P where they carry the cost but are not part of the upside."

Aha! Someone is taking the bull by the horns and putting in place a way to route the money so that the networks open up and get paid for carrying content. It would be easy to think that the netcos should be happy with cost savings, and try and keep the distribution fees to themselves, but this statement above all the others shows that Arootz is pragmatic and understands that a virtuous circle needs to start somewhere. And the hardware?

"It can be embedded in software or hardware, it provides distribution and targeted advertising capabilities" and "we are not the brand"

Where Next?
As with every small company, there are a million things that can go wrong as larger and better funded alternatives try and achieve the same thing. That said, the technology that Arootz has and the pragmatic approach shown by their commercial model is an excellent starting point.

Channels to markets (they are in many) still threaten to derail the company as putting together the video supply chain involves dealing with some very heavy hitters. It may require the sponsorship of one of these big players to get the ball rolling, but this is a solution where without compromises, everyone wins. Worth keeping an eye on...

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Thursday, 26 July 2007

 

iPlayer

It's not even a month since the last i launch, but tomorrow sees the launch of another service that could disrupt its industry to an even greater degree than Apple promises to do with mobile telecoms. This time though, thankfully, we won't have to pay the homeless to wait in line for us to get hold of it.

The BBC launches the iPlayer tomorrow, but unlike the iPhone launch where all you could find was praise and hype, the BBC faces nothing but criticism, doomsday scenarios and even calls for a ban on the eve of it's big announcement. No wonder the folks behind it have decided to find pastures new.

The problem is that the BBC is publicly funded. It gets its money from everyone in the UK with a TV set because we all need a license to own a TV. The BBC's license revenue comes in exchange for a responsibility to deliver a universal service, free of advertising to anyone who pays the license fee. Foreign readers may find this curiously eccentric in the 21st Century, but the BBC is a national institution and we are British so that's the kind of thing we do.

This is where the problems lie. The license fee was designed at a time when the BBC was broadcasting: it had no competition in 1922 when the license was introduced to cover radio. The TV + Radio license was introduced in 1946. The Sky empire was still just a twinkle in the eye of James Murdoch's grandfather at that time.

The company (if you can call it that) is now operating in a very different world, but for many reasons (most of them sentimental), the BBC is still funded this way. As a result, it competes with other TV channels (and web sites) on an unequal footing because their funding model does not expose them to market forces.

Because the BBC is publicly funded, it has been free of the commercial pressures that competitors face on a daily basis. Has this given it an unfair advantage...? How many R&D departments would be given 4 years and £3m to deliver a project? Surely, anyone else in the same position would have lost the faith of shareholders well before now and management would be history. The BBC's unique position has shielded the iPlayer and given it breathing space in which to develop the service.

On the other hand though, how many R&D departments would face an Ofcom Market Impact Assessment, a Public Value Assessment, a full review by the BBC Trust and scrutiny by parliament before it could launch? The kerfuffle about the lack of service on Macs and Vista - there is a petition with 11,000 signatures with Downing Street asking the PM to ban it - is frankly pathetic. Do people really expect the BBC to be able to launch the service working 100% and available to everyone on day 1 with no testing?!?

Anyone who has ever been involved in product management will know that this is a recipe for disaster. The BBC cannot eat the elephant in one bite, but because of its funding model it will be forced (they might say "easily persuaded") to deal with standards issues like no other entity. The elephant will be consumed.

The Mac and Vista options might be addressed by making the content available through other media players as long DRM issues can be resolved. I suggested in my LUI Part 6 piece, where we described a prototype of the future of IPTV, these players are likely to include the likes of Joost. Because of its universal service obligation, the BBC is not in a position to say no.

The BBC's obligation extends beyond the internet however. For those without a PC, the BBC is investigating Virgin Media's on demand platform. This still leaves a chunk of people with no access to the service because of technology constraints on the user's side (no PC, no cable, no broadband).

Even though Freeview does not offer the bandwidth, the BBC is sure to get embroiled in how to serve these users, where other competitors would simply write off the niche as too expensive to serve. This is the flip side to the breathing space they have had to develop the service.

We already have video on demand from Channel4, an evolving service from Sky and a promised launch of a service from ITV that looks spookily like that promised by the BBC. So what's the big deal with the BBC's launch tomorrow? I've said it could disrupt its industry to a greater degree that the iPhone, so I had better explain myself...

Driver for IPTV Adoption
Ofcom's MIA states that by 2011, the iPlayer is likely to account for 3% of TV viewing hours, which doesn't sound like a lot. This is in fact about 45 mins per household per week, assuming total viewing remains as today at around 25 hours per week.

But, as with Freeview, the BBC gives this new(ish) technology the credibility to go mass market very quickly. There will undoubtedly be a knock on effect on all other broadband television services because there may not be a more trusted organisation anywhere in the world than the BBC. If IPTV is good enough for the BBC, it's good enough for me...

Looking closer at the Ofcom projections: 3% of total viewing is 9% of the BBC's current viewing. It would be reasonable to suggest that competitors services might grow in line with the BBCs. This would mean every household in the UK watching on average 2 hours and 23 minutes a week of IPTV by 2011. Over 3 billion hours a year...

Bandwidth
The MIA also says "The costs of the broadband capacity required to support the services could in aggregate be between £399 million and £831 million over the next 5 years." Once the capacity is there "the additional capacity would also be available for use by a wide range of other services, including commercial on-demand services, [so] it would not necessarily be appropriate to attribute the associated costs to the BBC services in isolation."

Ofcom's model says that the average capacity increase from the iPlayer will be 3GB per user per month by 2011.

Assuming that other broadcasters follow the same adoption curve, you are looking at almost exactly 9.5GB extra per user per month to serve the 9% of viewing hours at standard definition. This will add around 46kbps per user to an ISPs peak traffic load (approximately doubling what they have today). This is low, because I am using data that shows that early iPlayer alpha trial users had web-surfing-like peak to mean traffic profiles.

TV usage profiles tend to be much more peaky than web surfing traffic. Where you might get a peak to mean ratio on web traffic around 1.6, on TV viewing profiles, this looks more like 2.8. Cutting a long story short, this would push the traffic impact of the iPlayer from 46kbps per user up to around 81kbps additional traffic (easily tripling today's usage, from just one application).

Reverse engineering Ofcom's 3GB per user per month figure from the 3% penetration rate shows that they assume a 2Mbps encoding profile in their models. This suggests that high definition is not being taken into account.

If the BBC were to deliver at 1080p instead (as ABC.com in the US have announced they will), you might want to multiply the total capacity requirement by 5. With all content (ITV, Sky etc) as HD, the 9.5GB might be 45GB extra for every house connected to the broadband network. This would push the incremental peak load per user up by between 220kbps and 385kbps depending on peak to mean profile.

Money
Where there is demand, there is money, right...?

Actually, no. This is the other major problem with the BBC, the license fee and the universal service requirements. The BBC's iPlayer will not generate money from adverts (the BBC does not do ads), from subscription (the license fee already covers the service) and any other creative sources of income (including abroad), are likely to be relatively trivial.

This is not an issue for the BBC because the content is paid for already (its a catch up service of stuff already produced for broadcast). The service creation costs have been kept under control at £3m and rather than having to pay a big hosting bill, Kontiki's P2P client is being used, theoretically relieving the BBC of the burden of distribution costs.

The big losers are the networks who have to carry all this extra traffic and have no way of monetising it. This is again a BBC-specific problem because with other commercial broadcasters, the ISP is in a position to do an ad-revenue share agreement based on the unique element that the ISP can provide - the postcode. (We are going to come back to this point and the revenue opportunity from commercial broadcasters other than the BBC in LUI Part 10 early next week.)

The use of P2P actually makes the problem much bigger for the ISP. Historically, the BBC's web traffic, although significant, has been manageable via direct peering relationships between the ISPs and the BBC. Replacing this with P2P looks (to me at least) like a two fingered salute to the businesses that have to transport the BBCs product.

Summary
Even using the lowest results in the analysis, the iPlayer promises to double the traffic on the UK internet between now and 2011. On top of that the iPlayer opens the door to other broadcasters, which could mean that instead of doubling the volume of traffic, the iPlayer launch could drive an increase by tenfold or more.

I'm going to be watching the iPlayer's use of bandwidth very closely over the coming months. As I have done with Joost, Babelgum and 4oD, I will be running traffic source analysis and looking at where the Kontiki client gets its traffic from. Channel 4 also uses Kontiki, but using their service, I found that the scarcity of peers meant that much of the traffic was client server from the seed caches instead of actually using P2P.

I will be keenly examining the peer hit rates as that will determine the BBCs costbase. I will also be looking at where these peers are and whether BBC/Kontiki keeps traffic within the service provider's network or whether (like other P2P I have tested), in-country traffic source management is random. I will be publishing the findings here at periodic intervals.

If I can get the client from the website, the first set of data will be published here by lunchtime tomorrow...

UPDATE: no client = no data = no update. Sorry folks...

I got to the site by 7.40am, regsitered but have yet to receive the invite. I wouldn't say that the message board is on fire yet (10 ir so people grumbling about the same thing), but there are people who stayed up until midnight to register who are in the same boat.

They let Mashable in though, so if you are looking for a sneak peak that's the place to go. If you want a different perspective on possible adoption rates, I also found this.

IWR were able to run an initial test and reported that a 30 minute programme was 108MB, which suggests an encoding rate of 480kbps. It is not known what the download speed was, which may be different from the encoding rate to allow for buffering. The picture defaulted to 400 x 200 screen size, which sounds small.

More on this when I get my prized invite...

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Monday, 23 July 2007

 

LUI Part 6 - Television over the Internet

This is part 6 in the Leeds Unbundled ISP (LUI) series that Keith McMahon and I are producing. The aim is to deliver a view on the commercial prospects of a hypothetical ISP, serving a niche community (Leeds in our example).

Before we can properly present the numbers though, we need to describe what those numbers are modelling. We have already looked at backhaul, staffing and our short and medium term product set. Today we look at the biggest variable in the future of our made up ISP: video.

IPTV is better for viewers than broadcast because it is truly on-demand. It gives viewers timeshift capabilities for BBC, ITV, C4, Five and Sky so that they can watch what they want on TV around the rest of their lives. So what is the variable?

While we are confident that video services like YouTube will continue to grow, we are not sure whether mainstream TV will successfully move online because of economic, marketing and technology challenges. IPTV is competing with established digital platforms (satellite, cable and freeview) that already penetrate 18m homes (more than have broadband). Getting mainstream TV online means replacing these distribution networks with the internet.

Consider the scale difference between the two extremes of service adoption: YouTube consumption is a few minutes at a time, a few times a week. TV is 25 hours per household per week. YouTube is currently 200kbps, IPTV as a vehicle of HD means 10Mbps.

There is very little that LUI can do to make any money from YouTube, but conversely, once we have our gigabit backhaul links in place, we are not too concerned about the cost of carrying its traffic. If they cranked up the resolution to the levels used by Veoh (700kbps), we might be a bit more concerned but as it stands, we are happy enough to carry the traffic.

What cannot be allowed to happen is for us to end up in a situation where we are a simple transport network for everyone else's broadcast-replacement services. Our commercial model, and that of every other ISP in the world, is based on carrying relatively small files (peak traffic over total users equals around 35kbps). TV viewing moving over to the internet and adopting HD resolutions will make this closer to 5.5Mbps (159 x the current dimensioning).

This needs to be paid for and the value is in the content: people buy music, video and TV. They don't buy bits and bytes. This means that we need payment for our bits and bytes bundled with the payment for the music, video and TV services. This means adopting a Fed-Ex model for superfast delivery of premium, newly released content and ad supported models for the rest.

Will this happen? Maybe, but only if the economics are right - we know that IPTV offers better functionality than broadcast because the internet uplink opens new doors for interactivity. With the public becoming disillusioned with telephone based interactivity on TV we think that the internet can rescue what had until recently been a popular genre of content.

Furthermore local loop speeds of 20M or so means HD at 1080p is practical and can be made available on demand. It's all technically possible but all these developments will only be attractive at a price point that is competitive with broadcast.

So where does that leave LUI?

Nowhere, right now at least. We just have a basic access service with some customers on CPS. Next up dev wise is the photo blog (due Q4 2007) and starting work on the softswitch (due 2008 perhaps). Enhancements to the photo blog and community stuff are mid 2008 launches.

We looked at buying in a wholesale IPTV service, even before we unbundled the access service. When Tiscali bought HomeChoice, we heard some suggestions that the HomeChoice platform would be wholesaled alongside Tiscali's LLU platform. While the attractions were obvious, the differential advantage was not, so we rejected that option.

More recently, we have looked at Iliad's platform and the service that Fastweb offers with a view to buying that in lock, stock and barrel. These are not currently deployed in the UK and although we could overcome the competitive issue to some degree, we just felt a little underwhelmed by the idea of taking something that had been done before.

LUI wants to do something a little differently and has to exploit our core concept: our localness. For LUI, IPTV has to be build around the community, but we also have to remember that it is still essentially a distribution network for mainstream TV that replaces the satellite dish, cable or freeview aerial in the home.

LUI's problem is that our customers can get all that from other operators, notably Sky & HomeChoice, so where we need to be different is in the EPG. We need to offer social networking in the EPG that exploits our localness and the social groupings within our customer base.

We are a network company and a small one at that, we need someone bigger to bring us the content. That means the content won't be exclusive so we have to add value to it another way. Hence the EPG and social network mashup.

That means things like the ability to recommend a programme to your circle of friends and comment on what you have seen, perhaps with an SMS gateway tacked on for alerts. When you turn on your EPG you see the linear TV option and the timeshift scroll back for the mainstream channels plus a Friends Recommend Channel.

We also have the Leeds Community Channel which will be developed before our IPTV service, but which needs evolve onto the TV when IPTV does arrive. The Community Channel is where local interest groupings (schools, community education, sports teams etc) can post virtual private videos to their members - much like the Iliad offer. All this is built on top of a core of content based on today's free local press.

We are already lobbying to force the publicly funded BBC content to be made available via public API so that anyone with a delivery solution can use it to deliver BBC content. The others are different because they are commercial entities, so why will ITV, C4, Five and Sky let us carry their stuff, sometimes in direct competition with their offerings?

Money. Pure and simple. They can get more from our subscribers if they deliver content via our network than they can via other means.

How? Because we know the customer's postcode and we can deliver that when we place the request for content. We also deliver the ip address of course, but they would get that anyway. With the postcode, they can then use Geo Mapping databases to paint a very good picture of who the consumer is, so they can use a) demographic and b) personalised advertising. They can't get this postcode without the ISP.

We could also consider sharing any special interest profiles that the user may create on our social network but this raises some ethical issues I suspect, not to mention the technical challenges.

But all of this needs to be pulled together: content, advertisers, client software, DRM and CDN. We are looking for one party to bring this to us. LUI's plan is to work with them and vice versa to prototype the future of IPTV.

The prototype is based on Joost, or Babelgum or Veoh (we haven't stitched it all together yet, it's just a plan). Something that runs on either an AppleTV-like STB or on the TV itself. Their job is to aggregate the content and provide us with an efficient distribution using P2P and local caching. They also handle all the advertising including the targeting and pay us a revenue share.

In order for this to work, Joost (or whoever our chosen partner is) must bring a deal with the major broadcasters. Joost does the deals with the content owners for us because they can and we can't.

Our BBC, ITV, C4, Five and Sky content comes through the deals that Joost has with them. Joost can pay better ad revenue than the producer can get by themselves from broadcast because we give them the postcode. As a result, they can target ads much more effectively. We get a rev share because we are adding value to their proposition.

Furthermore, we are solving one of Joost's problems - the EPG and social networking, which are currently lacking in their product - and we are leaving them to concentrate on their role as the IP TV operating system. We carry Joost's traffic and help them develop their intelligent localised P2P routing.

We provide the EPG (or at least our software partner behind the photo blog / community web stuff do that for us) and that has a two way API into Joost (or whoever). The EPG is our value add, our brand, our directory of content and the portal through which users can get to the array of services that we offer. Of course, they can go onto the open internet but with our gateway offering them RSS-based access to the world, we reckon that we can hold a fair proportion of the screen-time on our own services. Which is great for our ad revenues.

Of course this is all made up. LUI doesn't exist and there are holes in the plan and some very rough edges. With any luck though, this might give you a few ideas...

Part 7, back on Telebusillis is going to look at Hardware, which Keith will publish later this week!

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Wednesday, 16 May 2007

 

That precious hour

Ten days ago, quite unexpectedly, my wife had a baby. Of course, I knew she was pregnant, but the little guy wasn't due until the end of May so we weren't ready - I'd managed to paint the ceiling of his room, but not the walls. He didn't have anywhere to sleep or any clean clothes to wear. It was all a bit chaotic, as I'm sure you can imagine.

All's well that ends well, but all this meant that I was unable to write anything last week as my job suddenly became Chief Entertainer for our two year old son. They say that it's easier the second time around and they are right - looking after a newborn is infinitely easier than looking after a two year old...

On Monday night this week I got a bit of time to myself. Not much, but between 8pm and 9pm I managed to catch a bit of telly. Fortunately for me, there was not one, but two programmes that I wanted to watch. Unfortunately for me, we don't have a Sky+ box and my old VHS recorder let me down badly when I tried to tape the Australian Grand Prix a few weeks back so I have consigned that to history. So I had to make a choice: did I want to watch Panorama's programme on Scientology or Dispatches' character assassination of our next Prime Minister, Gordon Brown?

Again, last night (Tuesday), I had an hour to myself. A precious hour. An hour I had worked hard for all day. But what was on? Nothing!


(Strictly speaking, that's not true as I have hundreds of channels, but there was nothing there to float my boat and I ended up watching Hugh Grant's truly dire American Dreamz on Sky's Comedy Movie Channel)

So one night I miss something I would like to watch and the next I'm forced to watch Hugh Grant pretending to be Simon Cowell because there's nothing else on.

"A sample of one", said an industry expert when I described my problem to them. "The best thing about television is that it is not interactive", and while I agree with them to a point, I can't help feeling that what I experienced last night (not for the first time on a Tuesday night by the way), would be enough to convince me to go for a genuine time-shifted / catch-up TV service. Given how precious my time is now, I would be willing to pay for it too - on a subscription basis, not pay-per-view as the last thing I want to do after reading The Gruffalo for an hour is to analyse whether watching X is worth £Y.

So why don't I get a PVR? Jolly good question that - maybe I should - but I can't help thinking that this just adds one more problem to my already busy life. A PVR requires planning and foresight which is something most people with kids are short of at 8pm. For sure, I would have been able to watch Lewis Hamilton's debut in Melbourne a couple of months back because I would have set the thing to record (as I tried to with the VHS), but you don't often get a programme like that, that you know you are going to miss and want to watch enough to get off your backside to do something about.

I am talking about that veg out time. That precious hour, when you really don't want to think "if only I'd set the PVR last night", when it would be so much easier just to go "back" through the programme guide and find something, anything, better than is on offer right now.

If you are the BBC, ITV or C4, making quality programmes, why do you want to restrict your audience to those that happen not to have anything better to do when your work is aired? Don't you think that more people would actually watch your stuff if they could do it on their own terms. Maybe they would watch less imported tosh and maybe Sky have more to lose than gain from on-demand?

Clearly, the BBC and C4 are with me on this. The iPlayer is
horribly caught up in bureaucracy, which is a shame because the BBC have most to offer when it comes to quality programmes. C4's 4oD is available now, so as part of my research into this article, I have caught up on the half hour or so of the Dispatches programme that I missed when I switched over to Panorama on Monday.

The quality of the 4oD download was good. The file was 348 MB for 48 minutes of film, which is very slightly under 1 Megabit per Second. Interestingly, it was 48 minutes because the 1 hour broadcast had been stripped of the adverts - which I consider peculiar in the extreme. Surely, here is a great vehicle for ads to help pay for the service provision. Although, with the ability to fast-forward in the current media player, you might not expect people to watch them...

So I watched the re-run of Dispatches on my PC and as I worried about whether my country was going to end up with a control freak as its next leader, I also considered some research that I had seen from CacheLogic into online video watching habbits. Was I happy with watching TV on my PC? Yes, but it was "during my lunch break": I would not want to do this at 8pm during my precious hour of veg out time. I didn't last night... I watched Hugh Grant "acting" the twit instead.

The picture quality was equivalent to broadcast TV (and better than Joost, which runs at around 700kbps). You have to download the 4oD application which has an embedded Ioko Kontiki P2P client, which obviously aims to spread the distribution burden.

I checked my download with Wireshark (fka. Ethereal) and found that over 90% of the data was coming from Ioko's own network, indicating that the seed file had not been distributed sufficiently to allow P2P to have much impact on Ioko's (and C4's bandwidth costs). I'm sure they weren't helped by the fact that I turned off my 4oD client as soon as the download had finished in order to save my bandwidth cap. This all meant that someone on BT's Central Plus that had been receiving data from me, had to find somewhere else to get it from - probably back to Ioko...

It is also interesting to note why I wanted to watch Panorama. Like many other visitors to the BBC's web site I had been intrigued by John Sweeney's tirade at Tommy Davis (official BBC version). As a blogger with an emphasis on online video, I was further intrigued by the use of video by the BBC to promote their programme and the use of YouTube by the Church of Scientology to counter the position taken in the programme - Scientology getting its retaliation in first.

So whatever your views, whether or not you believe we are descended from aliens or not, you can now make your views known to the world and with a bit of time and effort (and £2,000 of electronic equipment). I have no doubt that there will be a lot of long term fallout from this very high profile example of an electronic propaganda war.

On demand allows me to fill my precious hour with something I want. But it's not just about me, it's also a vehicle for advertisers who want to reach me. Consider for a minute how much you have learned about me by reading this article and hearing what I like to watch.

Put yourself in an advertiser's shoes and ask yourself how good a profile you could build of me if you could monitor what I watch when I really do have a choice. The uplink on an IPTV service is pretty much ideal for transmitting such detailed one-to-one demographics back to you, the distributor. You could be pretty sure to "know me" with a picture of my likes and dislikes over time. You can hit me with what can genuinely be called targeted ads. And, because you are in control of the content feed to my TV set, you can place personalised ads, just for me, that you know will be most likely to get a reaction from me. Even when I am watching The Bill, just like everyone else.

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